Coy Covington didn’t mean to become the foremost interpreter of Charles Busch drag roles in Texas. But someone has to do it
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Uptown Players’ recent production of La Cage aux Folles was that Coy Covington had nothing to do with it — not as an actor or even as the resident wig and makeup designer. It was a rare instance when Covington — probably North Texas’ most prominent master of female illusion and the long-standing artistic associate for Uptown Players — didn’t exert his patented skill set on a show involving drag. But he has some good reasons.
For one, he’s “been there, done that” with La Cage; Covington played Phaedra the Enigma, one of Les Cagelles dancing girls, in Birmingham, Ala., around 1990… the show that christened his gender-bending performances “on the legitimate stage,” as he elegantly puts it. And for another, Covington was busy working on another show, which opens later this month: The Tribute Artist, in which — no surprise — Covington dons a frock for his onstage characterization. But, he insists, don’t mistake him for a pageant girl.
“There’s a line in the play — which you’ve heard me say a million times and Charles has, too — where my character, Jimmy, says, ‘I am not a drag queen — I am an actor,” Covington says over a cocktail and queso.
It’s a distinction that has been hard won. A number of years ago, Covington even considered turning down the leading role in a camp comedy because it required him to play the heroine, not the hero. He worried about being pigeon-holed as “the drag actor” instead of just “the good actor.”
He ended up doing the play — Charles Busch’s Red Scare on Sunset — and hasn’t looked back. Indeed, something magical has happened since then: Covington has embraced his identity as “North Texas’ answer to Charles Busch,” and made a career out of putting his own take on the playwright and actor’s signature comedies. And neither he nor Busch himself could be more pleased.
“Coy brings to my work a genuine star presence,” Busch says of his Doppelganger. “I’m thrilled that Coy has played so many of my roles. I’ve never had the opportunity to tour in one of my plays, so this is a great way for Dallas to see my work.”
In all, Covington has appeared in about a dozen Busch plays (sometimes in multiple productions), starting with Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium and continuing through such deliciously outrageous shows as Pardon My Inquisition or Kiss the Blood Off My Castanets, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Sleeping Beauty or Coma, Die, Mommie, Die!, Psycho Beach Party, The Divine Sister and now, finally, The Tribute Artist, which opens Aug. 25 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
The names alone of most of these plays are certain to bring a grin to your face, always made more delightful by the gimmick inherent in all of them: The a man in a dress plays the protagonist — not as a drag queen, or even a cross-dresser or trans person, but as an actual woman. All of Busch’s plays maintain that fantasy… except, it turns out, the latest one. And that was one of the things that drew Covington to the role.
“One of the things that interested me about it, that drew me in, is that Jimmy is a female impersonator, not a woman — the first one of these roles that Charles has written” like that, he says. “Hopefully that will give me a chance to play [it a different way].”
The premise is that Jimmy, a struggling drag queen, impersonates his landlady after she dies so that he doesn’t lose her Greenwich Village apartment. Things go, of course, horribly and hilariously wrong. But even though Jimmy is a man, Covington remains in drag the entire time.
“Jimmy keeps up the charade of the plot, but while I change wigs once, the real reason there is no reveal is that a rapid transition in and out of drag is very hard,” Covington says. “That makeup is like warpaint, and doesn’t go on easily or quickly. You can take it off quickly, but you end up looking like a peeled onion, and I don’t want to look like a peeled onion; neither does Charles.”
There is an element of Mutual Admiration Society in the relationship between Covington and Busch. “Everyone is so respectful of Charles, because he’s so good,” Covington says. “I think Charles is at his best when he throws in nasty shit for no reason. But everything that comes out of my mouth is word-for-word what he writes, which is a heightened syntax — a lot of it is difficult to memorize. The trick is, you have to do it completely straight. He has written the comedy in there — you don’t have to impose yours on it.”
Busch, for his part, says Covington’s understanding of that is what makes his performances so good.
“As a comic playwright, I hope that a production is able to mine all of the laughs that I’ve provided in the dialogue but not at the expense of genuine emotion and human behavior,” Busch says. “The Tribute Artist is a zany, outrageous comedy, but the root of the story is about the desperation of getting older, of being young and searching for your future. There’s a lot going on. Coy is immensely likeable and has an established relationship to an audience, so a big part of the heavy lifting is accomplished before the play begins.”
Of course, it’s not just in Busch plays where Covington has plied his acting skills. He’s also been in Mommie Queerest as Joan Crawford, as a special guest in UP’s annual Broadway Our Way fundraising revue, and other performances. But, I tell him, he’ll always be associated with Busch because “you do it better than anyone.”
Covington glances down and picks up his wine. A moment later, he demurely says, “True.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 11, 2017.